Hello dear readers, where did I leave you last? Oh, right, preparing for a bomb-shelter-style canned goods dinner party.
I had no idea then that we would actually be in disaster mode by the time I wrote to you next, but here we are only one short month later, all of us fully traumatized by collapsing roofs and public transit systems, buried in snow up to our ears and nursing wounds from bitter words and ice balls hurled at us by our neighbors (when we accidentally shoveled one shovelful of snow into their ill-defined parking spot…).
It’s time to talk about recovery. For the MBTA, many a roof, small businesses, and folks who have lost their jobs for not being able to get to work, recovery will be a slow process. But for those of us who are just stressed out, irritable or suffering from twisted ankles and pulled muscles, there is some simple relief available.
The cure is saunas. It sounds stupid and simplistic until you try it. Once you do, you’ll realize that an hour or two a week in a wooden box with heat pin-pricking every surface of your skin and hot air balloons for lungs is exactly what it takes to get yourself back to baseline. Sweat enough and you’ll start feeling like the human you were before 96.3 inches of snow fell on your world within 30 short days.
Since the enormous Russian bathhouse in Allston closed a year or so ago, your options for getting a sauna in Boston are fairly limited compared to cities like NY and Chicago. You will have to scrabble a little to get your sweat on, but a) it’s worth it because you’ll see and b) if you haven’t developed your scrabbling skills yet, you should—they’re critical for survival in this season and this city.
There are six routes to sauna in this town:
Hotels and Spas
The first is to steel yourself for dealing with the luxury-minded and exploit the saunas available at fancy hotels and spas. These places can be uncomfortable to approach if you are unaccustomed to extreme comfort, but the upside to luxury environments is that even if the people who work there hate you for not being a big spending-spa goer or a hotel guest, they have to express their hatred as extreme kindness.
One of the best options for this kind of sauna access is the Exhale Spa chain with branches in Back Bay and on Battery Wharf. The trick at this place is to take (or simply pay for) a yoga class at the $25 drop in rate and then you’ve got access to the sauna (and steam bath) for the rest of the day. They also offer a trial “unlimited class card” for $30 which gives you a whole week of access to the amenities available at both locations. The Langham Hotel (in the financial district downtown) offers a day pass to their sauna (and heated pool) for $25 as does the Boston Harbor Hotel, when they aren’t under renovation…
Join (or “Try Out”) a Gym
The second route is to join (or pretend to join) a gym that has a sauna. There are tons, including Healthworks women’s fitness centers, Commonwealth Sports Club, Equinox, and Boston Sports Club. Even the YMCA on Huntington Ave has a sauna. If you have friends who belong to any of these clubs, they can usually bring a guest at least once or on certain days, or always. Many of these clubs also offer free trial memberships, or low cost day passes that let you give the club a test run. Others offer classes that you can take once on a drop-in basis that (inadvertently) includes access to the sauna. And in some cases, the membership is so inexpensive ($10/month) that it’s worth getting just for the winter just for access to the sauna.
Visit a Community Bath
If going to a gym or a fancy hotel/spa is going to make you feel too out of place, some more down to earth options include Dillon’s Russian Steambath in Chelsea and the L Street Baths (part of the Curley Community Center in South Boston.) Technically, the Curley Community Center is a gym, but the bathhouse is also a thing unto itself. Both of these options are community experiences. You don’t just sit primly in a towel for an allotted number of minutes and then politely squeeze by people recovering from a workout or warming up before a spa treatment. Here you make a day or evening of it. You bring your friends and sit around with multiple generations of townies or Russians letting it all hang out, talking trash, taking occasional breaks to get a snack or drink.
At Dillon’s, for $13, you can get a good old fashioned Russian “platza” (a brisk massage involving a broom made out of oak leaves) to relax tight muscles. In Southie, you may meet a Brownie in the sauna and get taunted into taking an ocean plunge. (The Brownies are the famous L Street-ers who start every year with a ball-shriveling New Year’s Day swim in the ocean outside the bathhouse). The L Street Baths have been sauna-ing and steaming Bostonians since 1931 and Dillon’s has been beating sweaty people with oak leaves since 1885, so you’re in good hands at either of these places.
Rent a Room, Get the Sauna
Want a more intimate sauna gathering? A quickie search on Air bnb for Boston area rentals with saunas reveals 24 options ranging from $80-$450 per night. No need to stay the night though—just get some friends to pool some money together, rent the room or apartment, spend an evening mixing drinks in the kitchen and hanging out in the sauna, and then clean up and head home.
Bring the Sauna to You
Or try the newest sauna option in Boston, Mobile Sauna. It’s a sauna in a bus that comes to you (or wherever you want) for an hourly rate of about $100. Mark, founder of Mobile Sauna (who has done a great job by the way of outlining the purported health benefits of sauna), says that while there is only one sauna bus this year, there will be “a whole fleet” by next Winter. The sauna part of the bus fits about 6 people at a time comfortably (though more can be accommodated in the bus’ “lounge” and shower areas simultaneously) and if parked in your backyard, a party of 30 or so can easily rotate through the sauna in an hour or two as long as they have somewhere else warm to go while waiting. Also, contrary to Mayor Walsh’s recommendation, Mobile Sauna reports that many Bostonians are using their sauna-bus as preparation for “the snowbank challenge.” For those unfamiliar, this means diving naked (or nearly naked) into snowbanks. The mobile sauna can be reserved on 24 hours notice, though they tend to busy on weekends, so book ahead if you need the bus on a Saturday.
Make Your Own
Finally, the most complicated, but also the most durable and arguably rewarding sauna option: DIY. After visiting a makeshift sauna in Baltimore on a road trip that consisted entirely of an army tent and a wood stove, artist Ethan Kiermaier was inspired to build a sauna in his back yard in Jamaica Plain using remnants salvaged from carpentry projects.
The first year, it was constructed out of a geodesic dome that Keirmaier had used as a shelter while working on a cabin. “I set that up, and just covered it with whatever I could find—like scrap plywood and fabric—and then installed a wood stove that I already had inside of it.” Neighbors were bemused but a little wary of the giant, odd looking sculpture in his back yard with smoke coming out of it. This first iteration also wasn’t quite warm enough to function as a true sauna. But because it could hold 20 or so people, it did function as an interesting outdoorish Winter community space, so ended up being a site for some pretty interesting sound and art experiences.
Keirmaier loved having this Winter social space so much that he tried again the next year, making a smaller, slightly more discreet structure framed in wood, but again with fabric walls that really couldn’t stay in place very permanently. This one operated functionally like a sauna in terms of temperature, but was about as makeshift as the first one.
Finally, in 2013 he built one that could stay up for the season and which could be assembled and reassembled as needed. “We fundraised…just asking everyone within the community of people who were really engaged with the project already to kick in a little cash, and then were able to create a more permanent structure out of plywood and foam insulated panels that could be taken down and put up in an afternoon.”
“It was really effective and worked tremendously well until our landlord started getting complaints that there were naked people hanging out in a sketchy looking shed with fire in it in the backyard.”
The trouble since then has been finding a place where he can set it up, but Keirmaier is not deterred. He began making the saunas as a substitute for taking vacations from the Northeast to escape Winter and found the experience surprisingly rewarding. “In some ways it was a lot better than going away in the Winter. Because it meant that everybody—in order to not go insane—we were all forced to connect with each other more. And you know, there’s something about condensing social space into a very small physical location that increases intimacy exponentially. And the heat adds to that, and then the sensuality of it is really important in the Winter because we get so alienated from our bodies.” He touts the labor and few hundred dollars involved creating a DIY sauna as absolutely worth it for the mental health benefits of having “a ritual space for reconnecting weekly with your own body and with other people” in the depth of Winter.
Whether you build one yourself, rent some sauna time, or finagle your way into someone’s health club, at least give this tried (by generations of Russians, Poles, Finns, Swedes, Germans and Estonians) and true technique for rebuilding your Winter-broken soul a good solid try. It’s a bit hard to describe exactly why it works, but I promise you it does.